5 College Majors That Can Pay More Money Than You May Think

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Source: Thinkstock

If you want to make a lot of money, you need to major in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subject, at least according to the conventional wisdom. Available data seems to confirm that assumption. After all, Payscale.com’s list of of “majors that pay you back” is dominated by STEM subjects like petroleum engineering, actuarial mathematics, and computer science.

The news isn’t good for liberal arts majors. Just 2% of companies said they were actively recruiting liberal arts majors, according to a 2014 survey of HR professionals and job seekers by Millennial Branding and Beyond.com, compared to 27% who were looking for grads with degrees in engineering and computer information systems. Nearly half of respondents felt there were “no jobs” for people with degrees in the liberal arts. Even worse off tend to be those who earn degrees that typically funnel people into “helping” occupations, like education, social work, and psychology, which routinely top lists of college majors with the worst salary prospects.

For college students trying to pick a major, the path forward seems obvious. Focus on an in-demand subject like computer science or engineering, and wait for the job offers to roll in after graduation. Unfortunately, things aren’t actually that simple. For one, many people with STEM degrees actually go on to work in other fields, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, which suggests that jobs may not be as plentiful in this area as many assume. In addition, some people simply don’t have the aptitude or the desire to study STEM in college. Does that mean they’re doomed to a life of low-wage work?

Hardly. While surveys consistently show that STEM majors are among the most lucrative in terms of starting salary and lifetime earning potential, they aren’t the only degrees that can prepare someone to earn a respectable salary. We’ve compiled a list of some other majors that can also lead to professional and financial success based on data from Payscale.com, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other sources. Some of them may surprise you.

1. Philosophy

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Source: Thinkstock

If you’re committed to studying the humanities, philosophy is your best bet, financially speaking. After 10 years on the job, philosophy majors raked in an average of $84,000 a year, according to Payscale.com.

While philosophy might seem like an impractical subject to study, it’s actually a demanding major that attracts talented students (philosophy majors earn the top scores on the writing and verbal sections of the GRE and also do well on the quantitative reasoning part of the test), and can offer a variety of possible career paths, from academia to law school to business. Billionaire investor George Soros studied philosophy at the London School of Economics, and some people even argue that studying philosophy is more useful to those pursuing a career in business than getting an MBA. “[M]anagement theory is a sadly neglected subdiscipline of philosophy,” wrote former management consultant Matthew Stewart in an essay in The Atlantic that argued that people would be better off studying philosophy than business.


2. Political science and government

Studying politics can pay off. People who majored in politics and government (who didn’t also have graduate degrees) had median lifetime earnings of $1.3 million, above the $1.19 million in median lifetime earnings for all people with bachelor’s degrees, according to data from the Hamilton Project. A separate study by researchers at Georgetown University found that people who studied political science and government had median earnings of $59,000. Top earners (those in the 75th percentile) were making upwards of $90,000 per year.

3. English

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Source: Thinkstock

News flash: English majors aren’t unemployable, despite stereotypes that they’re only cut out to serve coffee and answer phones. English Literature majors earn average starting salaries of $40,600, according to Payscale.com. That’s a bit lower than the starting salaries for people with more “practical” degrees like accounting or information technology and systems. But the differences in salary start to disappear once people hit the mid-point of their careers, when English majors have average salaries of $76,500, compared to $76,300 for accounting and $76,200 for information technology and systems.

Salary.com also points to English as a major that can provide a good return on investment (ROI). A college grad who turns his time studying classic works of literature into a career as a speech writer can see 30-year earnings of more than $4.6 million, a 122% ROI if he attended a public university.


4. Geography

Geography majors do more than study maps all day. People with degrees in this field may get jobs in disaster response, city planning, and environmental response, among other fields, reports the Association of American Geographers (AAG), with median salaries of $74,760 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS also reports strong potential job growth in this field of 29%, in part due to increased use of geographic information systems (GIS). Greater demand appears to translate into higher salaries for geography majors with more technical skills; the median annual salary for GIS technicians is $80,000 per year, according to AAG.

5. Industrial and organizational psychology

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Source: Thinkstock

Psychology is the second-most popular undergraduate major, according to the Princeton Review, but it’s also among the least lucrative. Psych majors earn an average starting salary of just $37,300, according to Payscale.com, with mid-career earnings averaging $61,800. Median lifetime earnings for undergraduate psychology majors who didn’t have graduate degrees were just under $1 million, lower than the average of $1.19 million for all people with bachelor’s degrees, according to the Hamilton Project.

But those who specialize in industrial and organizational psychology can do quite a bit better, with average starting salaries of $43,500 and mid-career salaries of $74,400. People who pursue this career focus on “applying psychology to people in the workplace,” according to the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and the BLS is forecasting a 53% growth rate in the field from 2012-2022, making it the fastest growing job in the country.

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